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What Prints? Leaves and Plants for Ecoprinting Fun!

Pansies, rose leaves, maple pods and more on leather

The number one question that students ask me before an ecoprinting workshop is "What prints?" Prior to the workshop, students will have read the event information that reads: "Students should bring leaves from their area with emphasis on high tannin leaves such as oak, maples, rose, hickory, sumac, blackberry, kudzu and interesting weeds. Fun additional plants (usually store bought) are eucalyptus and colorful " flat" flowers such as daises. No thick plants." To a long time ecoprinter, that paragraph makes perfect sense! But I began to realize that to a beginner ecoprinter, that description may seem almost like being asked to walk into an art store and just select any tube of paint for your project!

Mexican sunflowers

Most workshops have a list of easy to find supplies which can be purchased in a store or online. An ecoprinting workshop is unique in that your major supplies are all from Mother Nature! To keep it simple, I encourage people to look in their own backyards for these supplies. Looking for plants, leaves and weeds to use in an ecoprinting workshop should be part of the joy and fun! Friends and family members may not necessarily want to join you in an ecoprint workshop but they will usually respond enthusiastically to a walk in the woods. In fact looking for leaves to print is much like that feeling of discovery while walking on the beach searching for seashells and similar treasures!

So, what is the deal about tannin? And why is it important?

Tannins are natural compounds found in the bark of trees, in wood, as well as in leaves, buds, stems, fruits, seeds, and roots. It is not within the scope of this article to give a scientific description nor to describe how tannin relates to dyeing as there is a lot out there in any search depending on what your specific interest is! For our purposes in basic ecoprinting we are focusing on better known leaves, plants and weeds that have varying amounts of tannin such as oaks, pecan, walnut, poplar and sumac. Tannin is what helps give the imprint of your plant onto the fiber. Tannin in leaves is that same compound that delivers that astringent tang you get in your mouth biting into an unripe apple, nut or persimmon! Initially, we search for such leaves, but before long you learn to appreciate the softer imprints that low tannin plants give! That includes fig, mimosa, wisteria, many weeds and even grasses.


Clover and wild onions

So before you collect your leaves, let's get into the Ecoprint mindset! The most important part of "live" leaf selection is to remember that your plants are alive! As such they are influenced by their environment as well as the variety of plant. What does that mean? It means, for example, that all maple trees are not alike and leaves from a tree in North Carolina may not print similarly to the leaves from a tree in Oregon! Even experienced ecoprinters should be aware that environmental factors also change your prints if your area experiences drought one year, and monsoons the next. As you continue your ecoprint journey, you will see differences as the leaves and plants mature and go through their growth cycle.

wild violets and strawberries

In early spring, look around your yard and down at your feet. As spring progresses, you will have an abundance of leaves. But in early spring, be creative. You can supplement with store bought bouquets of flowers and/or eucalyptus.

Yes! Those catkins will print! pecan, birch, most of them
Store bought flowers

wild hyacinths
wild daisies from my pasture

Don't forget to gather some wildflowers! The flatter the heads of the flowers are, the more defined your prints will be.

This weed is actually wild geranium!

Daisy type flowers print best. Sunflowers are too thick!

Flower petals, as a general rule, will leave colors but not imprint as well as an actual flower head. Above are assorted daisies on leather. Below are red camellia leaves with pine needles and rose leaves on silk. The purple color is a typical response from iron in my well water or using iron as a mordant! Red will print purple.

Red camellia leaves

camellia leaves printing a shade of purple.

Rose leaves are a must have!

Rose leaves and anything in the rosa family such as blackberry and raspberry leaves print in a range of colors! Use any condition: fresh, dry, yellow spot, off the ground, imperfect, etc., they will all print!

Blackberry leaves

This unknown plant from a student printed green on this leather!

This bronze fennel printed well on both silk and leather

Another very important thing to remember about the leaves that you use, is the material you are printing on! As I remind my students, ecoprinting LOVES protein fibers and you will always get the clearest prints with the least amount of effort, from materials such as silk and wool. (Leather is also a protein fiber but has idiosyncrasies that take it out of the "simple" category!) So some plants print better on a softer, thicker fabric such as wool vs a flatter, thinner material such as silk. Again-that is the fun of ecoprinting! The discoveries!

Natural ecoprinting on silk and wool with assorted leaves and plants

Onion skins

Let's not forget the basic household groceries for ecoprinting such as onion skins! You can even go to your local grocery store and ask for the skins they vacuum out of the bins each day!

The green stems from fresh strawberries, carrot fact many fresh vegetables found with their greenery still attached from Farmer's markets will print! Wide leaf greens tend to cook on your fabric (plantain, spinach, etc!)

Dry, Fall leaves can be re-hydrated for use months later!

Although we have been concentrating on what you can find and pick locally, dry leaves are also fine! Read my blog on Fall leaf picking and storing.

Ecoprinting is what you make it! I prefer to keep it simple relishing both the collecting and the imprinting processes. Your leaves will be influenced by what they are, when you picked them and what environment you live in! Enthusiasts in other parts of the world will have access to totally different plants and species. I encourage students to stick with what they can find locally.

Be kind to yourself! This is not a competitive art class, nor a science class, nor a "best print wins" contest. This is ecoprinting naturally with your found leaves and plants and the results and imprints you get are from Mother Nature THAT DAY!

I teach classes that add color to the backgrounds of ecoprinted pieces and within that category, virtually everything will print, either as an imprint or as a "resist."

There is no doubt that adding a background color creates yet another WOW factor but it is fun to be able to see even a ghost imprint from leaves and plants that do not have enough tannin to give a good imprint on their own!


Gingko is one of those leaves that rarely leaves an imprint, but with a color background, you will get an image of this popular leaf!

Gingko printing as a resist

Learn what prints naturally in your area and then use the same plants again with a color background. It is a fun exercise and helps you learn the plants in your own backyard!

Ecoprinting is an art form where there are no guarantees and everyone is on equal footing. Regardless of the techniques taught, the end results are still dependent upon Mother Nature (see my blog about The Signs of the Moon!)

As you become more comfortable with ecoprinting, you will find yourself no longer wondering "will it print?" You will start thinking about designing with your plants! Lay your plants out with thought to a design, or add a hand painted embellishment to an already finished piece, needle felt something onto a finished piece. The point is, there are NO rules, folks! So think outside the box.

Using plants to design on leather for a handbag

Handpainted fairy added to ecoprinted silk scarf

Using leaves for the design on a silk garment

Needle felted Bluebird on raw silk

To summarize when asked "What prints?",

I prefer to reply "Let's find out!"

The one thing I can guarantee will happen with my students after a workshop, even if they never continue ecoprinting, is that they will never look at a tree or bush the same way again!

So relax, use the leaves you have and enjoy the Journey!

As usual, to see where I will be next, visit my Workshop page and use the drop down menu!

Until next time!


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